“A Delicate Balance,” Yale Repertory Theatre

--Irene Backalenick

Despite moments of high comedy, Edward Albee’s “A Delicate Balance” is a serious piece—and possibly Albee’s most fascinating. But it calls for considerable effort to get past a first, superficial impression. Albee can be ambivalent, obtuse, lofty, but there is much to be mined, as one peels off the layers. There is now that opportunity at Yale Rep, with a new—albeit disappointing—production, directed by the company’s artistic director James Bundy.

For starters, “A Delicate Balance” is a family tale, a dysfunctional family tale. Siblings, parents, children battle it out. Agnes and Tobias live in an elegant suburban home. Money, servants, fine china, and a well-stocked bar abound. The couple is joined in conflict and shared history by Agnes’ alcoholic sister Claire, much-divorced daughter Julia, and long-time best friends Harry and Edna. The latter couple, uninvited and struck by terror, has moved in for an indefinite stay.

Certainly a major theme is the question of boundaries. How far do obligations extend to friends, to family? Where does one draw the line between generosity and privacy? Agnes and Tobias are forced to examine their own values.

What is right and proper? What is outrageous? Julia, with a crumbling marriage, has returned home to Mommy and Daddy, expecting to take over her own room. Claire sees herself as “family,” with rights to stay. Best friends Harry and Edna, victims of terror, have also landed on the doorstep. (Albee never explains the “terror,” and it is open to any one’s interpretation. Is it fear of life’s fragility, fear of the vast universe, fear of the unknown?)
           
The current Yale production, alas, does not shine a bright light on this Albee play. Directors make choices, and Bundy, it would seem, lets his players go where they will. The result is a chaotic, not an ordered, universe, as each moves off in a different direction. Both Claire (Ellen McLaughlin) and Julia (Keira Naughton) are so exaggerated and shrill as to become cartoon characters. Kathleen Chalfant (whose past excellent record gives promise of a brilliant performance) oddly underplays the role. As Agnes, she frequently throws her head back, looking dreamily skyward, out of the picture. Where is the controlling matriarch Agnes is meant to be? One looks for stature, strength, dignity--all missing. And Kathleen Butler, as Edna, proves to be more grating than effective.

The men fare better. Edward Herrmann gives the best portrayal of the evening. His Tobias, while often as detached and ineffectual as he is meant to be, gradually comes through to reveal his humanity. Even John Carter carries off the lesser role of Harry, giving him just the right dense affability.

And, finally, one note about Chien-Yu Peng’s stage set. While it is rich with dark paneling and book shelves reaching to the high ceiling, it comes off more as a university lounge than a private home.

But Albee is Albee, and any production of “A Delicate Balance” will set the juices flowing and put the mind to work. Lives, relationships, morals, the cosmos, are all laid out to be examined.

This review also appears in the Conn. Post and on nytheaterscene.com

 

 

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